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‘Sing love songs to a lonely world’

Friends of the late Presbyterian pastor and songwriter Richard Avery create a touching and loving online tribute

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Richard Avery

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterians of a certain age can still sing — still do sing — the songs of Richard Avery and Don Marsh: “Every Morning is Easter Morning,” “Hey! Hey! Anybody Listening?” “We’re Here to be Happy,” “We are the Church,” and so many other songs,  memorable for their catchy tunes and their lyrics embracing an authentic faith and calling for justice for all God’s children.

The Rev. Richard Avery, a pastor and half of the prolific songwriting duo Avery & Marsh, died March 15 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Marsh, who for decades was Avery’s collaborator at First Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, New York, died April 10, 2010.

On Sunday, many of the people touched and blessed by Avery’s long and productive years of musical and parish ministry aired an hour-long remembrance of their friend and pastor, who lived to be 85. View their work, housed on the website of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, by clicking here.

“So weep if you want to, or shout ‘hip-hooray,’” go the lyrics to Avery & Marsh’s “We’re Here to be Happy.” “God’s ready to meet you on this and every day.”

Betty Collins, who was the Port Jervis church’s first female ruling elder, recalled that if Avery couldn’t find just the right hymn for Sunday worship, he and Marsh would quickly write a new one. “We had many hymns right off the copy machine,” she said.

During his four decades as pastor there, it was Avery’s practice to invite people from the park across the street from the church to come join in worship, “no matter their condition or how they were dressed,” Collins said. Some became active members of the church. “He had an unwavering hope in God,” Collins said. “He shone as an example of God’s love.”

A number of choirs lent their voices as part of the virtual service. One was a virtual choir from Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Avery and Marsh put on workshops for three decades. Avery himself conducted the choir during at least one song.

Avery selected not only the songs he wanted sung at his service of witness to the resurrection, but the Scriptures he wanted to be read. Included were Isaiah 6:1-8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” “Here am I; send me!”) and words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:13-16 (“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.)”

“He was the consummate preacher,” said Cindy Piatt, the organizing force behind Avery’s remembrance. He left behind “boxes of sermons” and “he spoke directly to people,” Piatt said. “I can attest they were thoughtful, provocative and challenging sermons.”

“Dick and Don were far ahead of their time writing songs for the ages,” Piatt said, adding, “they can be sung today.”

“We are the Church,” for example, could easily be sung during the current pandemic: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.”

One of Avery’s friends, the Rev. Chester Topple, recalled the day he met Avery in Santa Fe. Avery had offered his services to Topple and his congregation, and when the church’s choir director moved, Topple called the retired pastor wondering if the offer still stood.

It did, and soon Avery’s enthusiasm and ability doubled the size of the church choir. “He led people in the worship of God until he could no longer dance like David,” Topple said.

Avery and Marsh’s four decades serving the Port Jervis church — Topple called it “a Benedictine-type vow for stability” — helped the church become “a place for creative forms of worship for community concerts and theatrical events,” a church “ready to feed God’s lambs and give them comfort.”

“Dick loved the church, which as we all know is not a building and not a steeple,” Topple said. “It’s a place with doors open wide, banners unfurled and everyone is welcome. It’s a place where people are met by God and shown their sacred worth.”

“If we would honor and celebrate Dick’s life,” Topple said, “let us commit our hearts, our souls and our minds to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrongs in our midst and to allow the space for the new Earth and the new heaven to emerge.”

For the final song of Avery’s service, Jeff Jolly, music director at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, accompanied himself on guitar for “Sing Love Songs.” Among the lyrics:

“Sing love songs to a lonely world

Sing honest love songs by the score

Real love songs so all the lonely world

Knows why the church is here and what the church is for …

Bring laughter to a somber world

Bring joy and laughter loud and clear

Make laughter that fills the whole wide world

Our message to the stars that true love has been here.”

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